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Postwar drama 'Phoenix' focuses on trust, betrayal

Postwar drama 'Phoenix' focuses on trust, betrayal

Phoenix,” a moody post-Holocaust noir, stars the formidable German actress Nina Hoss.
Postwar drama 'Phoenix' focuses on trust, betrayal
Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld star in "Phoenix." (Sundance Selects)

“Phoenix,” a moody post-Holocaust noir, stars the formidable German actress Nina Hoss. It’s cowritten and directed by Christian Petzold, who shepherded Hoss through 2012’s taut East-West thriller “Barbara.”

Like the latter film, “Phoenix” finds its protagonist moving anxiously along the borders of postwar Germany, telling lies as if she believed them.

Unlike “Barbara,” which took place in 1980 with the Stasi’s informants everywhere, “Phoenix” is set in Berlin immediately after the Allied Forces’ liberation of the camps. It takes a while to realize that the woman whose face is wrapped in bandages, mutilated by gunshots, and about to undergo reconstructive surgery is Hoss’ Nelly Lenz.


DIRECTED BY: Christian Petzold

STARRING: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf


RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

A jazz singer and a Jew who was the sole survivor of internment among her well-to-do family, Nelly is being taken care of by a woman, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who will help her with a new identity, a new home in Haifa. Lene has proof that Nelly’s husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.

Nelly doesn’t believe, doesn’t want to believe. She trolls the nightclubs of the American sector, looking for her piano-playing spouse.

She meets a man clearing tables who looks like her husband; he doesn’t recognize Nelly, though there is something familiar about her. An exercise in deception follows. There is intrigue. There is suspense. Guilt — a man’s guilt, a nation’s — hangs heavy in the air.

“Phoenix” ends with a haunting performance of “Speak Low,” the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash standard popularized by Billie Holiday. It is Hoss’ Nelly singing, “Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon, too soon.” And it is Johnny accompanying her on the ivories.

The truth of the moment, after the mystery that has come before, is almost too much to bear.

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